“There’s only one difference between me and you
You got money in your pocket and I got a hole in my shoe..
All from doing the Slummer the Slum”
Of all the dance crazes that never quite took off, The Slummer the Slum is the one I most wish had made Bandstand just to see if anybody would admit it had a good beat and you could dance to it.
It was made by my favorite fifties’ rock and roll band, which was called Lowman Pauling, who also wrote it, and released by the vocal group he accompanied, who called themselves the “5” Royales. (I reviewed their mind-blowing box set here.)
Pauling and the Royales hailed from North Carolina and started out on Apollo records in the late forties as a searing, southern-style gospel group. While still on Apollo, they began to move into the secular r&b market. Too hardcore to ever court much pop success, they nonetheless struck a chord with black audiences (the one above is in Cleveland) and had a nice run of hits that landed them a contract with the King label in Cincinnati, where their presence probably had something to do with the label’s subsequent ability to sign, among others, James Brown (a near acolyte) and Little Willie John.
Oddly enough, when they reached King, which should have given them a bigger reach, they stalled out for three years before Paul came up with the classics that established their name for good in the rock and roll universe: “Think,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Tell the Truth,” all successful for them at the time and later big hits for the obscure likes of James Brown, Ray Charles, the Shirelles, the Mamas & the Papas.
They soldiered on into the sixties without ever reaching the charts again themselves. Along the way, Brown, Steve Cropper, Eric Clapton and others paid lavish tribute and turned Lowman Pauling’s guitar into a foundational element of funk, soul and hard rock.
But he was a genius lyricist, too. Never more than here, where he limned out the politics of the Frozen Silence he wouldn’t live to see in a few hilarious, slashing lines that provide a prequel to War’s “The World is a Ghetto” and cut just as deep.
I don’t know any single record that’s a greater testimony to the bottomless nature of Rock and Roll America and fifties’ r&b.
“Don’t try to figure out where I come from I could be a fat cat from Wall Street, I could be the Purple People Eater’s son…. All from doing the Slummer the Slum….”
I didn’t realize until I went down the YouTube rabbit hole after Don’s death was announced this week just who many of his songs I still knew by heart, or that he had provided the missing link between Jim Reeves and Randy Travis. He’s known to rock audiences (if at all) as a favorite of Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton (who had a hit with a cover of Williams’ best record, which neither he nor anyone else could hope to improve):
But everybody in country knew Don Williams’ worth, both as a songwriter and, especially, a warm, graceful stylist who both carried on and inspired traditions without ever being mistaken for anyone else.
His legacy was an indelible piece of what country used to be, almost in spite of itself….and what it will be no more, no matter how hard it tries.
But don’t let that fool you. In his own time or any other, nobody else wrote songs called “Good Ole Boys Like Me” and meant to invoke a world that assumed Hank and Tennessee Williams came from the same place, let alone carried it off without breaking a sweat. Charlie Daniels and Hank Jr. have their place and their uses. But Don Williams carved a niche for himself by being the Voice of Reason in the face of rage and resentment. The radio was better when he was on it and the world was better when he was in it.
When Gregg Allman–of Nashville, Daytona Beach, Macon and Savannah–came back from the West Coast in the late sixties, to join his brother and some friends in yet another attempt to find a place in the rock and roll Cosmos, White Blues was a concept owned by Brits and Yanks.
He immediately gave the newly formed Allman Brothers Band a huge advantage over everyone else who had tried the concept. There had been a number of formalist White Blues guitar players–Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green, Gregg’s brother Duane–who could match the skill and intensity of the great blues guitarists, while sounding like no one but themselves. Gregg Allman was the first formalist White Blues singer who could match the skill and intensity of the great blues vocalists…while sounding like no one but himself.
Aside from Ronnie Van Zant–of Jacksonville, Florida–he was also the last.
In the manner of singing like a black man, it evidently helps to actually know some black people.
Except for a brief romantic and professional liaison with Cher in the late seventies, who he was at the beginning remained who he was at the end–somebody determined to keep the spirit of what had moved him alive in the modern age. If that made him seem like an anachronism as time went on, it also made him a committed soul. At his best, from the beginning to the end, he embodied the spirit of the Southern Rock he helped invent–and threw off the chains that bind us.
Hope there’s a Skydog Reunion in the works somewhere tonight.
I’ll just take the suspense out of it this time and go ahead and admit my current favorite double LP, unlikely to be dislodged any time soon, is the one pictured above. I’ll get back around to it in a bit, but I want to preface this with a short history of the “double LP.”
It has to be a short history because truly important double LP’s in rock and roll–one artist, studio bound, more or less conceptual, on two 12″ vinyl records, making some sort of real statement that amounted to something more than simple overindulgence or hubris–weren’t all that numerous.
Though the concept had been around since the fifties, Bob Dylan started the whole thing for rockers with Blonde on Blonde in 1966. Over the next two decades or so, the meaningful history of the concept amounted to more or less the following:
Freak Out The Mothers of Invention (1966)
Electric Ladyland The Jimi Hendrix Experience. (1968)
The Beatles (aka The White Album) The Beatles (1968)
Trout Mask Replica Captain Beefheart (1969)
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs Derek and the Dominoes (1970)
Exile on Main Street The Rolling Stones (1972)
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Elton John (1973)
Songs in the Key of Life Stevie Wonder (1976)
Tusk Fleetwood Mac (1979)
The Wall Pink Floyd (1979)
London Calling The Clash (1979)
The River Bruce Springsteen (1980)
1999 Prince (1982)
Double Nickels on the Dime The Minutemen (1984)
Sign O’ the Times Prince (1987)
I may have left out a few, especially on the cult side, but those entries represent the basic shape of it. There were dozens of others recorded (who can forget Atomic Rooster!) but those are the highlights from the days when it still mattered–major artists, or at least major cult artists, making major statements in the studio that couldn’t reasonably fit on one LP in the pre-digital days before virtually unlimited content made the LP, let alone the double LP, an entirely amorphous concept. These days, if you want fifteen songs on your latest album, there’s usually nobody there to either stop you at twelve or make you come up with four more. Same if you want thirty-two or seven.
That said, the list above is not a half-bad overview of rock history, or at least the limits of rock ambition, from the mid-sixties to the late eighties. Before the technology altered both limitations and expectations for the form, it was almost impossible for any but the most adventurous artists to leave any kind of impact on the history of the music through the medium of the double LP. Technology giveth–the double LP couldn’t have existed without it. And technology taketh away–these days anybody can make a “statement,” so no one ever quite does.
So it goes.
My own experience with double LPs is pretty limited. I’ve listened to all the albums above at least once or twice. Of those I’ve heard only once or twice (Freak Out, Trout Mask, The Wall, Double Nickels), I can imagine some day getting closer to Double Nickels on the Dimefor reasons I explained here. Of those I’ve listened to more than once or twice, I can easily imagine getting closer to Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland, Songs in the Key of Life, The River, 1999 and Sign O’ the Times, all of which I like a lot but never quite obsessed over.
Besides Tusk, that leaves:
These, I’ve obsessed over.
Some time or other.
Leave London Calling, however reluctantly, to youth, and the breaking of rulers (or, as I used to call them, drumsticks) over various bits of unpaid-for furniture.
Say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road really is a tad slick and, if I say that (which it maybe is, though only in comparison with what’s left standing, and really only a tad), then I have to say the same for The White Album too, even if the least of it functions perfectly as filler.
Somewhere along the way, you have to make things a little bit easy for yourself.
That leaves Layla and Exile and Tusk and having to choose–really having to choose because I chickened out on my last category and there’s no point in doing this if you aren’t going to make impossible choices.
Boy, do I feel foolish.
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and Exile on Main Street are not only bottomless, they come from a period I really like better than 1979. Surely it was harder to define despair at a moment when at least a modicum of hope remained? Surely it was harder to sound crapped out at the beginning of the last decade before the reactionary backlash fully set in than at the end, on the very eve of the real destruction?
One thing that doesn’t surprise me in hindsight is that neither Eric Clapton, the Stones nor Fleetwood Mac ever sounded quite up to the task again. All made fine music now and then. None ever again sounded truly epic.
And maybe the reason I give an edge to Tusk these days is that it pulls off the near impossibility of sounding quietly epic. Which, given its subject matter in common with Layla and, especially, Exile–spiritual desperation born of dissolution, unless, of course, it’s the other way around–just means it ends up, on the very closest attention, sounding ten times as vicious.
You end up sounding ten times as vicious as Exile on Main Street, you’ve got my attention.
But how else is there to hear it when you listen close?
Granting it’s all “metaphorical,” the rain outside coming down forever, the feel of 1979, transmuted through the broken relationships that had already been done to death on Rumours, one of the best and most popular albums of the decade. But so what? Pass it through ten thousand layers of studio polish and emotional murk and a knife fight still sounds like a knife fight.
And Tusk still sounds like what The White Album might have if John and Paul had gone right ahead and said what they were really thinking, instead of holding it back for their solo albums (and George, checking in from the other room, had been half the singer Christine McVie was).
For a good portion of Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham doesn’t just sound like he’s waving knives, he sounds like he’s throwing them. And Stevie Nicks sounds like she’s catching them in her teeth and spitting them out. Which leaves McVie to wipe up the blood.
Pleasant that. And never-ending. The damn thing stops and, sure enough, when you push the button–no relief breaks from getting up and turning over the record anymore…technology giveth and technology taketh away–it starts all over.
There’s Buckingham, saying stuff like “What makes you think you’re the one?” and “It’s not that funny is it?” and “That’s all for everyone,” in the exact tone you’d expect from somebody who is banging the little woman’s head against the wall he just ripped the phone out of. Pretty soon he’s singing “Don’t blame me,” like a head case on Law and Order who makes you believe until the very last minute that he might be innocent. After that he’s singing about walking a thin line inside his own head as a lead-in to an ode to his member which, in context, begins to sound like an Appalachian murder ballad.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”
Before I have to put this knife in your throat.
All of which should make the myriad of devices–alternately soothing, bitter, angry, forgiving–that Nicks is using to survive sound pathetic (a “mooncalf” in Robert Christgau’s contemporary judgment). Probably she would sound pathetic, except that she’s Stevie Nicks, so even when it seems like she’s going to drift away, (“drowning in a seas of love, where everyone would love to drown”) there’s always some bit of timbre or phrasing that snaps her back. Pretty soon after you accept that she isn’t going to come undone, her compliments–“When you were good, you were very, very good”–start to sound like razor cuts, just because she’s the one singing them. “Intense silence” sounds like “Intense violence” and there’s no question who the silence and the violence are really directed at. You can fool yourself into believing she’s indulging in escapism but it would be very dangerous to turn your back.
That leaves McVie in something like the role she had on Rumours and, to a lesser extent, Fleetwood Mac–a honey-toned referee, there to cut the hard tension with a kind of melancholy that doesn’t exactly disperse the bitterness but at least makes it bearable.
Except here it’s not quite that simple. Here she sounds more like the woman across the street who can hear what’s going on at the neighbors’, who keeps a window open maybe just so she can hear, but can never quite bring herself to call the cops. Over and over she’ll never forget tonight. Something’s certainly distracting her. Maybe she’s having the best sex of her life. Maybe she’s found true love. Maybe she’s earned her peace.
Too bad the neighbors are killing each other.
It’s easy enough to hear why Tusk never reached the stratosphere commercially. It runs on sounds and attitudes more than melodies and pop song structure. It’s a mashup, coolly received in its own time (Greil Marcus was one of the very few big-time critics who lauded it–John McVie said it sounded like three solo albums mashed together and he wasn’t entirely wrong, just irrelevant), which turned out to be a time most people would like to forget.
But we still live in those times. They were just beginning when Fleetwood Mac spent endless months wringing Tusk out of the experience of their own lives and their improbably mad fortune. There’s something heroic about most of the other albums I listed above, even those which came after, when the rot was really setting in. There’s nothing heroic about Tusk. It promises no change, offers no peace, no idea that things will ever get better. Like every one of the great albums listed above it had its finger on the pulse of its own time. More than any album I know of, it also had its finger on the pulse of the future.
I’ve been playing around for awhile with a concept I’m calling Modern Disintegration Blues, a kind of record in which artists from across the musical spectrum, acting with or without premeditation, capture the Zeitgeist that best represents the arc of the developed world in my lifetime.
Yes, it’s just as much fun as it sounds.
Anyway, I’ve been limiting it to records from this century and up until the listening jags inspired by my pill-induced stupors of the last two weeks (and boy does this disintegrating world offer up the pills!) I had discovered a nice round number of two: Patty Loveless’ Mountain Soul II (2009) and the Roots’ Undun (2011), which, for the last year and half or so, I’ve taken to listening to almost exclusively in tandem
I should mention that the concept is also limited to records by artists who have or have had some kind of following. No cult acts allowed, however brilliant. You want to define a Zeitgeist, I want you to at least have a gold record or two on your wall, even if they don’t include the MDB albums themselves.
I should also mention that, given my lack of engagement with the music of this century generally (a lack enforced more by budgets and time than a willingness to keep up, though a little of the latter has crept in of late), there could be dozens of such albums out there, yes, even by popular acts, that I simply don’t know about.
Maybe I should also mention that every time Marcus or Christgau suggest something that sounds like it might be up this little alley, I rush to YouTube. Let’s just say the results have not inspired me to make out new budgets.
Anyway, during the early stages of my semi-convalescence last week, I developed an acquaintance with Tom Petty’s Echo, which pretty clearly pushes the concept back to 1996. It has the same kind of “better stop dreaming and concentrate strictly on survival” vibe and, except for a couple of cuts, is delivered as a dirge. In 1996, that was pretty visionary for a guy known for hooks, hits and staying on the surface.
So I started wondering just how far back the idea might stretch. And while I can’t say I’ve thought of anything else that fits all the specifics of my little concept, I’m currently sold on Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1972) as a likely starting point and definite subject for further research. Like, maybe I don’t know it as well as I thought!
I might write about any or all of those albums later and I might develop the concept a lot further or not at all. Who can say where the mind will wander if I manage to wean myself off of my ibuprofen habit?
What I want to write about today, though, as a kind of tangent, was where the search led me next, which was a place where I was listening to Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) and Jackie DeShannon’s Jackie (1972), partly because I was already groping around in the early seventies, partly because I love both albums unconditionally and think they’re among the greatest ever made (one acknowledged, one unacknowledged and you probably already know which is which, though if you don’t and follow this blog, you can definitely guess), and partly because they sit right next to each other on the CD shelf, which means every time I pull one, I’m reminded of the other.
Mostly, though, I wanted to write about them because, in their current incarnations, they represent an aspect of modernity that need not be depressing.
There’s certainly room for disagreement on this–God knows I love vinyl–but the ability to turn a four-sided double-LP like Layla into one long, uninterrupted listening experience seems an unmitigated good. And the ability to change a really good album like Jackie (released as one LP with twelve cuts back when) into a monumental, seamless 24-cut epic is basically a godsend.
Both albums seem bigger frankly (and I wouldn’t have thought, back in the day, that Layla could seem bigger) because of what modern technology–not a small factor in the Disintegration Blues–has made, or remade, of them.
There’s a sense of loss, of course, deep in the bones of both LPs, whatever the format. Eric Clapton made the best music of his life, the only sustained music that was truly free, because he told his best friend’s wife if she didn’t leave her husband, he would become a heroin addict, which he proceeded to do.
That the woman in question and the friend in question, this woman and this friend as it happened…
were Pattie Boyd and George Harrison and that she eventually did leave him for one Eric Clapton, who then actually married her only as an extremely cheap and nasty publicity stunt (you can get the details in her autobiography, which I reviewed here), gives the story an epic sheen, of course. But any gossipy glamour has long worn away and what’s left is a man who sounds like he won’t get out of this moment. Just about everybody has acknowledged that “Layla” sounds like that, just as absolutely everybody knows “Layla” is specifically about Pattie Boyd.
What’s weird is how obvious it is that the whole album sounds like that and the whole album is about her–including the covers–and how little that is acknowledged. I mean, to read Wikipedia these days (and think what you want, but it does an excellent job of reflecting the common wisdom), you’d think Boyd was only tangential to “Layla” itself, forget “Bell Bottom Blues” or “Anyday,” or pretty much everything else. And forget that Eric Clapton never sounded like this, before or since, for more than a minute or two.
What’s doubly weird is that I could imagine pushing the date back another couple of years and making Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs the foundation of my Modern Disintegration Blues concept. Even knowing that Eric Clapton was basically a jerk and his mad love was as much an ego-driven whine as a desolate blast of passion doesn’t take the edge off. It’s always possible the world’s disintegration can emerge from one man’s version of it within himself.
Which kind of makes this woman even more valuable…
I’m not sure where she would place in a carefully considered “sanest person of the sixties” list, but I bet it wouldn’t be outside the top three.
She was just as sane in 1972 and ’73, when the tracks that now make up the Rhino Handmade version of Jackie were recorded. It didn’t do much business in its time (the second set of tracks was supposed to comprise a new album which Atlantic promptly shelved) and it hasn’t done much since. Nor did it yield one of DeShannon’s periodic hits-for-others.
And its not really disintegrative. More like a restorative. The kind of album you listen to after Layla or There’s a Riot Goin’ On or Echo or Undun or Mountain Soul II.
That’s weird, too. Because it aches from every groove or chip or beam or whatever mechanism now applies. And yeah, it’s probably the best album she ever made, but it’s of a piece, too, with her entire luminous career.
She didn’t need to blackmail her best friend’s husband to reach her version of transcendence. She just needed to be.
You can guess which artist is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times and which is still waiting.
Then you can join me in wondering where the Modern Disintegration Blues really begins.
Usually, my listening is pretty free form. Once in a while, I focus.
Yesterday and last night, between and around a catch-up work day and watching tennis on the internet, I listened to three cds that have been laying around for a while. The mix between heard and unheard was about even (had some of this on vinyl from back when) and they ended up illuminating each other because they emanated in whole or in part, from rock and roll’s pre and early dawn.
I started with this…very familiar though I never listened to so much of it in one neatly organized package…
Then I proceeded to this, on which the only thing I’d heard was a couple of sides by Charlie Feathers…
And, long after the stroke of midnight, I ended on this, which was a long-ago vinyl favorite I finally managed to upgrade to CD…
Blues, rockabilly, gospel.
Moreover, the blues and the gospel were hard-core, foundational, touched with genius, while the rockabilly (with some straight period country thrown in) was marginal (though occasionally thrilling).
But the light kept on shining, even through the margins.
The earliest gospel on Fathers and Sons is from 1939, though most is from 1945-56. The Muddy comp covers his late forties, early fifties sides comprehensively. The Meteor sides were made between 1954 and 1957, by which time the revolution was in full swing.
I kept being struck by two qualities throughout, one surprising, one not.
Unsurprising: Singers matter. And great singers are much harder to come by than great anything else (guitar players, song writers, visionary producers…none of them really matter quite as much until they are paired with the right voices).
Surprising: An awful lot of this didn’t quite go where we’re accustomed to thinking it went. Or at least it didn’t stop there.
Listening to Muddy, I was struck by how little his singing affected the English blues bands who worshipped him in the sixties and how much it did affect the Southern Rock singers who, in many cases (and Ronnie Van Zant’s case in particular), found their way back to him through Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones.
Listening to the Meteor collection, which ranged from almost pop-ish country to the hardest rockabilly, I was struck by how slavishly the “authentic” artists stuck on the fringe of the fringe (in Memphis, but not on Sun), were pursuing hits–and by what somebody or other thought might make one. If the ethos found a future it was in the neo-country revival of the eighties and nineties epitomized by Dwight Yoakum, who may never have heard a single one of these sides.
Listening to the gospel sides, the line to soul is straightforward, as expected. But coming so close on the heels of Muddy’s conversion of blues from the country to the city, it became clear that a lot of what we think of as white “soul” or blues shouting–or maybe we should call it screaming–is actually rooted in gospel giants like Archie Brownlee and Julius Cheeks, who sourced Wilson Pickett and the other soul shouters Mitch Ryder and Lonnie Mack chased in turn, as surely as the Soul Stirrers’ unmatchable Rebert Harris sourced them (played father to their sons as the marketing department would have it).
Which I guess is just a long way of saying that the racial confusion/collusion that was rock and roll’s great strength and enduring enigma arrived early and often and remained volatile and unpredictable throughout.
I guess you could say the various fathers’ sons were predictable enough, at least some of the time. But the grandsons were liable to fetch up anywhere at all…
All this is worth remembering now that we’ve come back around to the New Gilded Age, the New Puritanism and the New Jim Crow.
It’s worth remembering that they can all be beaten, though I confess it’s still an open question as to whether they can all be beaten at once. We used to be smart enough to take them on one at a time.
(Went to bed on Burning Spear and Jay Miller by the way. But that’s a whole other story.)
Listen to just about any musical genius who lived ninety miles an hour and found death before it could find them and it’s easy to hear them chasing what they caught.
It’s a long list: Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Charlie Parker, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Kurt Cobain. All carried deep desperation or (assuming the qualities can ever be disentangled) fatalism in their bones. They couldn’t have kept the devil’s laughter from being an essential part of how they sang or played if they had wanted to…which they wouldn’t have.
Listening to seven hours of Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective this week, four of them on the annual Florida-Alabama-Georgia loop that carries me past my mother’s graveside, what I heard was a man who had absorbed and mastered everything from Steve Cropper-style studio concision to deep, biting blues to epic guitar god soloing to do Clapton or Hendrix proud…and not only sounded like his own man on every note, but like he had all the time in the world.
He might have been the only live-fast-die-young icon who actually died on a motorcycle, but unlike everybody else I just listed, it’s easy to hear any piece of music he ever touched, from lightest brush…
to firm embrace…
…and imagine him living another fifty years if he had only lived another day.
When I make that annual pilgrimage in the future, I won’t have to worry anymore about which music to ride along with.
Posting has been light the last couple of weeks as I’ve been crunching towards some self-imposed deadlines on a number of personal fronts…should be back to speed within the next few days. Meanwhile, I wanted to at least give a quick comment on this years class of RRHOF inductees.
For lists of un-inducted artists who I feel are most worthy (i.e., most “overlooked” you can go HERE, HERE and HERE. (The “5” Royales–who were merely back-doored, decades after they should have been voted in, can now join Donna Summer (who had to die) and Linda Ronstadt (who had to get Parkinson’s) in being crossed off the list.)
Inducted as “Performers”:
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble: Worthy as keepers of the flame. I didn’t vote for them on my five-nominee (unofficial) ballot, but they were a close call and, if I weren’t so concerned about the Hall getting whiter by the minute (even the blues acts are white now), I might well have voted for them anyway.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band: Fine band, but I haven’t understood the nominating committee’s love for them in the performing category (this was their fourth nomination). They would have been a perfect candidate for my proposed Contemporary Influence category (though, even there, one could ask why not John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, who came first in the white-boy blues parade and were an even bigger cultish deal? Granted, I’m not anxious to see Eric Clapton inducted a fourth time, but still!) On the plus side, Mike Bloomfield needed to be honored some way (just wish he hadn’t needed to take up a “performer” space). And, it’s truly great that Elvin Bishop–one of rock and roll’s great characters–is going in. The Elvin Bishop Band were headliners at the only true “rock concert” I ever attended (a local act called The Fat Chance Band and pre-fame .38 Special were the undercard). I got in free (I’ve never been keen on spending money for transitory events when there are so many recorded events to buy…including a lot of awesome recordings of live events!) and nearly got thrown out for not having a ticket. Other than that, I remember the smell of ganja, a couple of extremely beautiful girls who were dressed for the smokin’ seventies and looked bored out of their skulls (whether by their thuggish looking dates or the music I was, alas, never able to determine), a disco ball that lit up for the band’s big hit (“Fooled Around and Fell In Love”) and copious amounts of vomit, chicken bones and beer bottles strewn around the floor in the dressing room the next morning, (which the African-American cleaning crew at the Orlando-Seminole Jai Alai fronton was tasked with cleaning up–leaving me to wonder, then and now, if it is not out of such things that riots are made). For giving me all the “seventies” experience I really needed, Elvin Bishop, you are, eternally, the man!
Green Day: Can’t really say much. I kind of like Dookie, which is the only music of theirs I own. I don’t think they’ve been terribly harmful and, given when they came along, that’s saying something at least.
Bill Withers: The only inductee I voted for so, of course, I’m very happy to see him go in. I’ve only really gotten to know his music past the hits in the last year or so (an experience that began with what I posted here) and he’s both great and unique. If there’s a caveat, it’s that, in the great scheme of things, he’s not quite as worthy as War or Spinners, seventies’ contemporaries who remain among the Hall’s three or four most egregious oversights.
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Not long after I wrote my piece on this year’s nominees, linked above, in which I noted that I’ve always liked the idea of her better than her actual music, I caught her lengthy interview/performance on Guitar Center. Look, with what she had to put up with, she’s very, very worthy. I take it all back! Suzi Quatro and the Go-Go’s can wait! But, beyond that, she does something that’s almost unheard of post punk. When she plays rock and roll, she acts, looks and sounds like she’s having the time of her life. Good on her!
Lou Reed: No particular objection, except that he’s already in for his even more deserving work with the Velvet Underground. Excepting really monumental exceptions (like Michael Jackson and, maybe, Eric Clapton) why, oh why, does the Hall keep nominating people who are already in? Oh well. At least Sting didn’t make it.
Inducted for “Musical Excellence”:
Ringo Starr: I, too, love “It Don’t Come Easy.” Also his drumming for a band that, believe it or not, has already been inducted. But…Wh-a-a-a-?
Inducted as “Early Influence”:
The “5” Royales: If you’ve been following along here, you know how I feel about this one. They were a direct, key influence on James Brown, Eric Clapton, Steve Cropper and many, many others. More to the point, they were artists who could easily stand tall in that, or any, company. They should have been inducted years ago, and as performers. I’m glad to see them inducted some way at least. And they did have important records before 1955 so this isn’t the complete stretch that Wanda Jackson was (God bless Wanda and I’m glad she’s in, but naming her an “early influence” which is supposed to be saved for pre-rock giants, was ludicrous). But having the nominating committee put them in, after the voters rejected them several times, is a sad commentary on the process.
Anyway, here’s to the most cosmic records/performances by this year’s inductees:
(NOTE: This is getting to be more like “vocalist of the six months”….It’s been a busy year on a lot of fronts and I’m just getting back in the blogging swing so I hope to start picking up the pace, here and elsewhere. Meanwhile….This is a sequel to the piece I posted here.)
I suspect every white boy who was born around 1960 (like I was) and grew up in the South (like I did) has at least one Lynyrd Skynyrd story.
Most of us have a lot more than one. Sort of a routine litany.
Stories like mine.
There’s the “Come to think of it John, I never have seen you drunk on your ass,” story and the “You better not let any of those Alabama boys hear you say that” story and the high school talent show story and the “girls cried when Elvis died and boys cried when Ronnie died” story (now there’s one common to all!) and the speakers blasting “Sweet Home Alabama” in the softball field parking lot story and the “My second husband never listened to nothin’ but country and Lynyrd Skynyrd” story and probably a few others I’m not calling to mind just now.
But I’ll leave those aside and let one story suffice.
It’s the summer of 1979 and I’m working in the girls’ camp at the Southern Baptist Convention Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina. Nice social experience, dreary job. There were five of us on that particular assignment (all college boys), plus two camp cooks.
The cooks were brothers–Texas born and raised, worldly, early thirties, mostly-reformed rowdies, a year or two apart in age. The older one was a Type B, cool, calm, collected. The younger was a Type A, charming, witty, talkative, possessed of a temper which he worked hard at keeping in check. (The one day he lost it, he took a swing at his brother, missed, then let go an animal yell and ran out the door. He came back about five minutes later, soaking wet. He had jumped in the lake where the campers took canoeing lessons, shirt, shoes and all, as we used to say. He apologized all around. Seemed to have gotten it out of his system. Us younger lads–when we got over our mild shock–sort of looked at each other and nodded rather sagely. No word needed to be spoken. He was clearly what we had suspected all along–even before we knew he and his brother had played in rock bands and once opened for the Animals in front of ten thousand people somewhere in Texas. He was, undoubtedly, a product of The Sixties!)
Type A going off and Type B’s modest reaction–“He gets a little belligerent some times but he’ll be alright”–were pretty definitive elements of their respective characters.
But what really defined them was that they had been intimates of Lynyrd Skynyrd–part of the inner circle via their friendship with Skynyrd’s last drummer, Artimus Pyle. The only way they could have been any cooler was if, say, one of them (Type B, naturally) had been asked to be the road manager of the band’s next-to-last tour–the one right before the one that ended in a plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines.
Naturally, we all wanted to know why Type B didn’t take the gig.
There were two simple reasons.
Reason One was that his daughter had just been born and he wanted to spend time with her.
Reason Two was that he was told one of his main duties would be keeping Ronnie out of fights.
The way he told it, it was pretty clear Reason Two would have been enough, if Reason One hadn’t existed.
If he had been around enough to be asked to be their road manager, he had certainly been around enough to know that–at least some of the time–Ronnie Van Zant was who we all thought he was.
* * * *
When Lynyrd Skynyrd released their first album in 1973 (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd‘), Ronnie Van Zant became an instant, virtually official, representative of a part of the population which had been judged by the content of its character for at least a century before Martin Luther King said we all should be and been found permanently wanting by everyone but themselves.
Hillbilly, Redneck, Cracker, White Trash. Hard to find an honorific in there.
And that was just the neighbors talking.
By the time Van Zant died in a plane crash four years later, he and his band had managed to demonstrate just how difficult such stereotypes are to shake. Deepen them, shred them, laugh at them, live for them, die for them and still, your most devoted fans and your bitterest detractors will insist on thrusting them right back on you.
When the music was playing, though, Skynyrd transcended such contradictions again and again. Then and now.
Ronnie himself was the essential reason for the transcendence. And his singing–Chuck Berry’s sly intonations riding in, around, over and under the moral undertow of a Delta man, with the mythic weight resting now on the former, now on the latter, often within the context of a single line–was the reason within the reason.
Not to say that the whole package wasn’t definitive. We live now in an age when the likes of the Who or Led Zeppelin are routinely going around accepting things like Kennedy Center Honors. If Elvis Presley, or even Hank Williams, had lived long enough, it’s not hard to imagine them racking up similar signifiers of middle-brow acceptance.
I can even imagine a future where “hard-core” rappers get the same treatments. Ice Cube maybe. Or Chuck D.
And why not? Heck, George Jones made it that far, whiskey bones and all.
You can be sure, though, that if that airplane had somehow stayed in the air, no such accolades would have ever been in the cards for Ronnie Van Zant. Not even if he had tried.
Which he wouldn’t have.
* * * *
Well, it’s always courting danger to ponder alternative universes, but, all in all, I’d say at least a few assumptions are safe.
First off, if your plane goes down the week you are releasing an album where you sing lines like “you won’t find me in an old folks home” and “whiskey bottles, brand new cars, oak tree you’re in my way,” and you are fond of telling anyone who will listen that you won’t see thirty, then a plane falling or not falling hardly means the fate you are courting won’t find you some other way.
Of course a lot of so-called punks, from Pete “Hope-I-Die-Before-I-Get-Old” Townshend on down, used to brag about being on the same sort of journey, and some still do. Some even follow through. But none of them were/are really philosophical (or any way off-hand) about it. Their brag came from a place Van Zant never thought of visiting. He didn’t say he wanted to die before he got old, just that he would–big difference, and, if you don’t want to admit it, wait til the next world comes and you can be sure that if the Void don’t care to explain it to you, then either John Calvin or Lucifer will be waiting to step up for a word with you please.
So much for “first off.”
Second off–and more significant–is that Van Zant grew up in my world.
Just the other side of the tracks I was just this side of, maybe–but my world all the same.
And I know this much.
You can run away from it. You can never really leave it.
It was a world where everybody had a more than sneaking suspicion that the Devil decides–and, if everybody carries certain sneaking suspicions around with them every single minute of every single day, then the habits of suspicion (and the beliefs those habits both spring from and reinforce) are bound to linger.
You can run away from all of that. Sure you can. Plenty have.
But you can never really leave it all the way behind.
Ronnie was definitive–definitively “us” even when “us” was me, who never did get drunk on his ass and learned to turn the other cheek when he was nine–because he never tried to leave anything behind–never once tried to run away from who he was, even though he knew what he was up against.
He had liberal views but none of the Liberal’s version of arrogance (condescension). And, lacking bluster (the Conservative’s version of same), he had no place to hide away.
So he was never going to be “home.”
Maybe that was why home worried him so much–became the source of his two great themes.
Home as haven. Home as trap.
In an age when nihilism was already running rampant everywhere except the middle of the road (which meant it wouldn’t be long before it was there, too–1980 to be exact), he clearly expected to pay for his sins.
Pay he did, ultimately.
Here’s what else he managed along the way.
* * * *
In a little over four years, between 1973 and 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded five studio albums plus an epic live double and another album’s worth of out-takes and demos.
All were worthwhile, most were great. That string of rapid-fire greatness made them virtually the last mainstream rock and roll artists to work at such a white-hot pace while sustaining both a creative vision and a wide audience. The difference between their dozen or so radio staples–a number matched or exceeded by only a handful of bands in any form but especially in the “classic rock” format, where only Led Zeppelin (the Beatles of the form) produced so many in such a short span–and whatever you think their worst side is, was minuscule. The vision could seem narrow, no doubt.
But once you stepped inside it–once you got past the cracker facade–it was bottomless.
They set the parameters of that vision, and primed the expectations of their core audience, on the first two tracks of their first official release (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd). “I Ain’t the One” was hard rock at its slyest (and hardest). “Tuesday’s Gone” was a wistful ballad, nearly as mythic as it was mournful and mysterious. Plenty of fine bands have lived on much narrower turf for decades. Skynyrd would be pushing and shifting and re-setting their turf–digging ever deeper–until almost literally the day they went down (in a plane Aerosmith had refused to fly in) and Ronnie’s death ended the band’s meaningful existence as anything other than a cash cow being milked for the very qualities–cheap nostalgia, boogie-for-its-own-sake–he had always disdained.
That urgency–the sense of constant movement within what seemed, on the surface of the very loud, often spine-rattling noise, to be such obvious restrictions–sprang almost entirely from Van Zant’s genius as a writer, bandleader and, especially, vocalist.
* * * *
The writing part was, by all accounts, pretty mystical itself. Van Zant’s band-mates have described composing sessions as often amounting to them working up a riff while Ronnie wandered down by the lake and, at some point when they were getting on toward an arrangement, he would walk in and have the lyric in his head, ready to go. Working, in other words, the way Quincy Jones has suggested is more typical of jazz musicians and rappers, though, if you substitute arrangements for words, and the parking lot for a lake, it also sounds like a typical Elvis session.
There’s some significance to that, I think.
There’s a point at which this sort of “process” becomes well known and can be self-consciously imitated. In jazz, this had probably happened by the mid-sixties or so. In rock, it had certainly happened by the late seventies. In rap, maybe a decade later.
It might not be a coincidence that stories of loosely run sessions are found most frequently when the musicians spring from America’s two traditionally despised demographics–blacks and poor Southern whites–or from someone who is specifically trying to imitate them.
These are also the demographics where concepts like the posse, the gang, the crew, the extended family (which might be based on blood relations or simply communal associations, generally developed no later than high school), take their strongest hold. Among these two groups, that hold tends to trump everything that tries to break it–including fame, fortune and common sense.
That’s probably because they are the two groups who are most purely and deeply defined by a physical and psychic space they are bound to defend, generation after generation, in order to retain any cultural identity at all.
Better a cultural identity that catches you in a trap, the reasoning goes, than none at all.
Once an “out” group accepts that it can never really be “in,” then “we are who we are” tends to be the most reliable fallback position. Once the acceptance becomes truly ingrained, then you don’t even need to fall back, because the wall is something you learn to keep your back against to begin with.
Out of that, what are you going to get except the far edges of the blues, honky tonk, rockabilly, gangsta rap and, for the purposes of this particular discussion, Southern Rock?
And inside each of those concepts (yeah, they’re musical forms, too, but, at their furthest reach, never just that) you get an occasional genius.
Ronnie Van Zant ended up being the principal genius of Southern Rock in part because his singing brought so many vital elements of those other concepts together in one place to a degree that was matched by very few others–all of whom (Bessie Smith, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Merle Haggard, James Brown, Al Green) have received far more accolades (not only from places like the Kennedy Center…and not only because most of them lived a lot longer).
That’s how it is with genius and concepts.
The concepts you can predict. The genius not so much.
It goes its own way.
* * * *
Of course, as with all the others I mentioned, hanging a label on Ronnie Van Zant and his great band is a bit of a trap in itself. The labels end up being technically correct and fundamentally ridiculous in the manner of calling Romeo and Juliet a teen romance or The Searchers a western or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn an especially fine example of Southwest Humor.
Some artists are just born to turn the cliches of form and formula on their heads and, inevitably, to put new ones in their place.
The way Van Zant went about practicing his particular acts of subversion was always rooted in a voice that was a perfect match for his lyrics–lyrics that, like the now-lilting, now-growling, now-shouting voice, held edges that were forever cutting both ways. So “Lord knows I can’t change,” (from “Freebird,” the career-defining closing track from their first LP) seems almost mock-ably straightforward until you actually listen to it being sung, after which it becomes impossible to tell the difference between the brag it so obviously seems to be on its face and the somewhat (though only somewhat) bitter confession of loneliness and isolation it surely is underneath. And that’s before you get to the next album’s second cut, “I Need You,” which plays like a sequel that promises everything “Freebird” denied, unless, of course, it’s denying everything “Freebird” promised.
And all of that is before you even get around to singing, you know, “In Birmingham they love the governor–boo, boo, boo,” and having the folks who love you without reservation completely agree with the folks who hate you the same way that you must be a big fan of “the governor.”
So it goes
One thing you learn, hanging out in Calvinist air–love and hate never do much nuanced listening.
So what can a genuinely poor boy do?
Become the only white blues singer whose voice carried no hint of either strain or homage? Claim the music in the off-handed way that a dozen or more singers leading equally fine blues-based bands–singers as great as Gregg Allman or as committed as Eric Clapton, fronting bands as great as the Allman Brothers or Cream–could only dream about? Cry for home every time you hit the road and cry for the road every time you come home? Maybe at the very same time make it sound like you never cried in your life? Make it sound like you’ve lived every single moment in the moment and never regretted a thing….unless it’s every single moment you weren’t thinking about the past or the future?
Celebrate with warnings?
Switch sides in the middle of a song?
Make it sound like “oak tree you’re in my way,” is you talking back to somebody (some preacher’s kid maybe) who is trying to make you see the error of your ways and then make it sound like “one hell of a price for you to get your kicks,” is you talking to somebody you are tying to save–somebody who may or may not be your own self?
Well, you could do all that. If you happened to be one poor boy in particular.
It’s not something that could have been easily predicted. With “art” you only know what’s possible once somebody reaches the limits.
We know what a “western” can be because John Ford existed. That’s true whether you like John Ford or not. We know what “country blues” can be because Robert Johnson existed. Ditto and so on and so forth.
We know what a poor white boy can actually do with what he himself called “the black man’s blues” because Ronnie Van Zant existed.
And so on and so forth.
* * * *
He couldn’t have come from anywhere else. God knows we know, because we know how many others–from here, there and everywhere–have tried.
He couldn’t have come from anywhere except the only part of White America which never expects to assimilate and the only part that knows that whether they just don’t want to or just don’t think it’s possible isn’t a secret they are likely to share even if they come to some conclusion about it themselves.
I don’t know whether Ronnie Van Zant came to any conclusions or not and I won’t pretend I could have found out by asking him in some parallel universe where he did live to see thirty and I used my contacts with the camp cook who almost managed one of his tours to meet him somehow. I doubt his ever-supple management of his own duality–the relationship that had to exist between man and persona that was probably necessary for him to get as far as he did, to claim any audience at all in his own moment or have any claim on the future he knew he wasn’t going to live to see–would have been set aside for my sake.
You live with your back to the wall and–live or die–you give up certain things to gain others. You can’t sing the blues the way Ronnie Van Zant did–the epic, eternal way–and retain your ability to let down your mask so you can explain things to the preacher’s kid.
Or live to see thirty.
* * * *
The manner and timing of Ronnie Van Zant’s death worked to ensure that the element of caricature which clung to him in life–clung no matter how diligently he tried to shed it, how deftly he put it to use as necessary camouflage–clung ever so much tighter once he wasn’t around to be diligent and deft and nuanced about it.
You want a single, reliable watchword for the deep, abiding contempt that college radio, or hip commentary, or thousand-dollar-a-plate fund-raising dinner attendees for either political party or just plain old Liberals-Who-Aren’t feel for the great unwashed?
“Lynyrd-Skynyrd” is all you need.
You need a similar word for the “nostalgia” of second husbands, or Conservatives-Who-Aren’t, or for anyone who thinks they’ve found comfort for the world view that truly believes this world would be a better place if, for starters, black people and “pencil pushers” just learned to stay in theirs?
Say the same.
I suspect no amount of asking people to listen closer will ever change this.
The need to be better than someone else is deeper than any ocean and, sometimes, being the voice who warns ignorance against itself and turns every easy assumption on its head doesn’t mean you are going to reap any easy reward.
Sometimes it just means there is only going to be one of you.
And, sometimes, being the only one means there is no safe haven, even in death.
So forget the “punks.”
If you really want to know what it’s like to never quite fit in–and to know you never will–then Ronnie Van Zant’s your man.
Rest in peace if you can, brother.
Rest in peace if you somehow found a place where they’ll let you.